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Bitter-Sweet Takes On New Meaning With Farm Bill Passage

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With the Farm Bill passing today and headed for the President's desk, the term "bittersweet" has taken on a new and potent meaning. Wholesome Wave and our many community-based partners have worked diligently for seven-plus years to create proof that, if given the appropriate financial resources, families struggling with poverty would absolutely choose, purchase, and feed themselves healthier food. Our SNAP and WIC incentive programs have done just that and more. The programs, now operating in 28 states and Washington DC, have also proven that consumers struggling with poverty value quality of produce, supporting local farmers and businesses, and taking part in their community - all values assumed to belong only to more affluent consumers. Our programs have proven that affordable access is a powerful social equalizer.

When the Farm Bill came out of conference with funding for nutrition incentives fully intact after two-and-a-half years of a very non-transparent and contentious process, we were elated. But as each day passed and the rush for support for the bill's passage heated the air, I, as a chef and father of two children living with diabetes, couldn't help but take the deep dive and feel disheartened by the overall bill. My elation is tempered by the cost of compromise, and the lopsided burden it places on those who struggle the most.

The bill has now passed and I am not jumping for joy.

There is no question we are absolutely thrilled by the provision of $100 million for incentives for SNAP benefits when spent at farmers markets on locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of provisions directing financial support to innovative, sustainable food systems work. Families struggling with poverty will be able to put fresh fruits and vegetables on their tables while supporting the businesses of local farmers.

But then we face $8 billion in cuts to SNAP.

While significant numbers of families struggling with poverty will be putting healthier food on their tables, and local and regional farmers will see some improvement in their daily struggles, nearly 800,000 individuals stricken by poverty, the vast majority of which are children, elderly, disabled or veterans, will have part of their meager rugs pulled out from under them.

There are numerous areas of the bill that stir me deeply on a personal level, but my professional focus has been solely on the role the bill plays in putting fresh, locally grown food on the tables of families struggling with poverty, while supporting the small business farmers who work so hard to to feed us all. We have stayed back from the fray of crop insurance and direct payment subsidies because they generally fall outside the scope of our mission. Despite this, I recognize the inequities that exist, as wealthy farmers will now continue to receive the same significant financial benefit courtesy of American Taxpayers, even though their operations are handily profitable without them. For these subsidies to remain in place while people in poverty will have fewer resources to feed their families is deeply disturbing.

It is with reluctance that we supported the passage of this bill for the following reasons: The current bill includes mandatory funding for nutrition incentives at $20 million per year, for 5 years, as well as increased funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Projects, Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Beginning Farmers and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, all programs that will increase affordable access to locally grown food and strengthen our local and regional food systems and economies.

With mid-term elections looming toward an uncertain outcome, if the bill had not passed, SNAP as we know it could have fallen into grave danger. After witnessing the proposed $40 billion in cuts to SNAP in the House version of the farm bill as well as the attempt to split SNAP from the bill completely, it's not difficult to imagine what would happen if there were a significant shift in Washington's political landscape. Wholesome Wave, and like-minded organizations, must continue to work diligently to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to a far more equitable, and sustainable food system. Let's leave scarce room for "bitter" in the next bill.

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